Skepticism in the Classroom: Lessons in Critical Thinking

by Dean Baird

Most lessons below were designed to work as quick drop-ins in a high school physics class. I'm sure they could work in many contexts and in many classrooms. They do not comprise year-long or semester-long critical thinking curricula. Rather they are important and worthwhile enrichments. These lessons stray from the pure academic content to help teach the skepticism and critical thinking that pervade the work of scientists. But they do so with accessible, everyday examples.

The lessons may be revised in the future. You are welcome to use them for classroom instruction and modify them as you see fit. If you want

I also hope to add more lessons as more material materializes. If you know of any, send it my way. If you have more info on any of the stories I've already turned into lessons, don't keep it a secret! For now, enjoy!

For even more Skepticism in the Classroom resources, check out Matt Lowry's awesome SitC page. He's got a hard-hitting blog, too!

The Baloney Detection Kit
Perhaps even better than "the scientific method" for use in school instruction.

Video Question Set
YouTube Skepticism - Baloney Detection Kit @ TPT
[Answer key available to teachers.]
Print version available from Skeptic magazine.
Three-color Mind Control
I saw Richard Wiseman perform this trick at The James Randi Educational Foundation's Amaz!ng Meeting 3.

Setup and Show Notes
Word document
PDF file
Dead Psychic's Sketch of JonBenet's Killer
The media frenzy over the confession of John Mark Karr spun out of control. Fast. This story stands in the long line of examples of local affiliate news being completely credulous.
The Psychic Sketch
Interactive QuickTime
Apple Keynote
MS PowerPoint
Questions from the preso
Word document
PDF file
Joe Nickell's excellent article on this sham
Football Clairvoyant
You get perefect, free tips from a clairvoyant all season long. Should you pay for his/her final prediction?
The Sure Bet?
Interactive QuickTime
Apple Keynote
MS PowerPoint

Did an Angel Appear at the State Fair?
Following up on a post from Bad Astronomy, I developed a quick lesson skewering the always-available, super-credulous local affiliate news. The Bad Astronomer added a follow-up post.
Angel of Carolina?
Interactive QuickTime
Apple Keynote
MS PowerPoint
Questions from the preso
Word document
PDF file
News Item
Xenophilia Reproduction
Columbia Explosion Photos from Space
A colleague forwarded an email to me with images of a space shuttle in the process of exploding. The original author of the email tells readers the images are of the Columbia disaster 2/1/03 and are from an Israeli spy satellite. What could be more appealing than a heavy-handed hoax (seasoned with a touch of anti-Semitism) at the expense of our fallen astronauts?
Columbia Explosion?
Interactive QuickTime
Apple Keynote
MS PowerPoint

Snopes Entry
Urban Legends Entry
Truth or Fiction Entry
Chicago's Most Haunted mp4 mov
Once again, a local affiliate aired a shockingly credulous story. This time, it's a haunted alley where ghosts apparently aren't getting enough attention. The accompanying worksheet was offered as an extra credit assignment for students interested in completing it.

Chicago's Most Haunted
Word document
PDF file

Old Spice Ad 1: "I'm on a horse"
How much is real and how much is CGI?

Leo LaPorte Interview with ad creators.

Old Spice Ad 2: "Questions"
How much is real and how much is CGI?

Power Balance Demonstration
Sales pitch #1

YouTube Skepticism: POWER/BALANCE @ TPT

Power Balance Endorsed by Shaquille O'Neal
Sales pitch #2

Power Balance Puff Piece on Today Tonight
A glowingly credulous piece on an Australian infotainment program.

Today Tonight Power Balance Follow-up
Skeptic Richard Saunders allows a Power Balance distributor to debunk the Power Balance device.

Skeptic Zone: How These Tricks Are Done
Austrailian skeptic Richard Saunders exposes the Power Balance "demonstration" tricks.

Outside The Lines: Power Balance Test
ESPN's Outside the Lines investigates the Power Balance and reveals the findings of a university study of the bracelets. [The YouTube link seems to have lost its connection.]

If all else fails, the Dropbox link

Magnet Boys
The bodies of boys in Serbia, Croatia, and Brazil are shown to have "magnetic" properties. Doctors cannot explain it! In Korea, James "The Amazing" Randi puts magnetic personalities to the test.
Magnet Boys
Interactive QuickTime
YouTube Skepticism: Magnet Boys @ TPT
YouTube: Serbian Boy
YouTube: Croatian Boy
YouTube: Brazilian Boy
YouTube: Randi in Korea

Pop Corn with Cell Phones (Bobtel08)
An early, subtle viral video ad campaign from 2008. Cell phones are arranged to pop kernels of popcorn located in the vortex of their microwave signals. And it works! But that's not the end of the story; it's only the beginning.

YouTube Skepticism: Cell Phone Popcorn @ TPT
YouTube: The Americans
YouTube: The French
YouTube: The Japanese
End of the World
The End of the World
We're never too far from the next End of the World prediction. This is a large-format poster (I print it at 17"x22") showing about 50 Ends of the World that have already happened.
End of the World

Religious Tolerance
James Randi Educational Foundation

Global Warming is Pseudoscience
Physics Nobel Laureate, Ivar Giaever, makes his case against the well-established findings climate science. Does he make a compelling case? No.

Is Global Warming Pseudoscience?
PDF file


nova randi
NOVA: Secrets of the Psychics
James Randi investigates psychics and faith healers at home and abroad. The video has gone out of print. See it on YouTube (link to right). Running time: 60 min.
Geller-Popoff Except
Video Question Set
[Available at The Lessons of Phyz at Teachers Pay Teachers.]
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 1/6
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 2/6
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 3/6
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 4/6
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 5/6
YT: Secrets of the Psychics Part 6/6


JREF In the Classroom is the centerpiece of our work to bring skepticism and critical thinking to K-12 students. The program will give educators access to a growing catalogue of grade-specific standards-focused resources including lesson modules, activity guides, multimedia materials, and more.

Participating educators promote critical thinking, science appreciation, and information literacy, and help students understand the need to critically examine unproven claims.

Students will gain an intellectual toolset needed to succeed in school and better navigate a life full of difficult decisions, confusing information, and conflicting claims. Best of all, the material examines fascinating topics like the paranormal and extraordinary claims from the fringes of science, while remaining relevant to other classroom content and addressing expected educational standards.

Do You have ESP?
This module is designed to allow students to come to their own conclusions about the validity of ESP claims through the use of carefully designed and controlled experiments. Students will also learn how to accurately evaluate the significance of the results guarding against, experimenter error, bias, and intentional fraud. Students will explore concepts of critical thinking and the scientific process.
Grades 9 through 12 
This exercise is suited for students in biology or psychology classes and can be completed in one hour although may require additional time depending on the number of trials performed.
Student Edition
Teacher Edition
The Case of the Cottingley Fairies This module examines one of the most celebrated public hoaxes in history. This guide tells the Cottingley story while exploring the role of publicity, celebrity, and physical evidence in shaping the publicís perception of extraordinary claims.
Grades 3 through 5
This exercise is suitable for any classroom context and can be completed in a single class period.
Student Edition
Teacher Edition
Dowsing: Science or Pseudoscience? This module explores the history, claims, methods, and science of dowsing. The lesson uses hands-on activities and discussion questions to help students examine the subject in a way that promotes well-reasoned skepticism of unproven and pseudoscientific claims.
Grades 8 through 12
This exercise is suited for students in biology or psychology classes and can be completed in one hour although may require additional time depending on the number of trials performed.
Student Edition
Teacher Edition
Astrology: Superstition or Science? This is a downloadable lesson module for use in high school and junior high school science and psychology classes that allows students to explore the scientific method, critical thinking and parapsycholological research through an examination of the history of belief in astrology. Students can come to their own conclusions about whether the claims of astrology merit assent, and engage in hands-on experiments about astrological predictions.

Grades 6 through 12
Astrology: Superstition or Science? exposes students to concepts identified in the national science content standards and AAAS science literacy benchmarks related to the scientific process, Science as Inquiry, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives, and the History and Nature of Science, and does so while presenting a topic of that captures the attention of students from many diverse backgrounds. AAAS Science Literacy Benchmarks addressed in the lesson include The Scientific Worldview, Scientific Inquiry and The Scientific Enterprise.
Student Edition
Teacher Edition
More to come...

Links to keep you in touch and in balance. This list is by no means comprehensive. It's just a few sites I've found useful in my skeptical wanderings.
Dean's Phyz Website
James Randi Education Foundation
Bad Astronomy (my favorite blog)
Skeptic's Dictionary
The Blog of Phyz
Skepticality (my favorite podcast)
Snopes - Urban Legends - Truth or Fiction